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Bolton Takes Heat for Plutonium Disposal Effort

By Mike Nartker

Global Security Newswire

WASHINGTON — U.S. Undersecretary of State John Bolton came under fire from U.S. lawmakers yesterday for continued delays in implementing a U.S.-Russian effort to eliminate almost 70 tons of weapon-grade plutonium, enough to make thousands of nuclear weapons (see GSN, May 10).

In the late 1990s, the United States and Russia each agreed to eliminate 34 tons of plutonium, but the effort has been effectively stalled by a dispute over liability protection in the event of an accident or act of sabotage at a Russian facility. In previous threat-reduction agreements, which seek to help Russia eliminate or secure former Soviet WMD stockpiles and materials, Moscow agreed to accept liability in the event of an act of sabotage or accident in exchange for foreign aid. Regarding the plutonium disposition effort, however, Russia has taken the position that if a U.S. contractor is involved in an incident, then either it or the United States should be held responsible. 

According to reports, the Bush administration is divided as to how to resolve the debate, with the Defense and State departments seeking more rigorous liability protections, while the Energy Department is satisfied with a less stringent approach. 

During a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing yesterday, lawmakers criticized the lack of progress in resolving the dispute.

“Why a program of this much global importance should be blocked by something as basic as liability remains beyond me. I’ve been amazed that the leadership of the United States and Russia cannot resolve this issue. Failure to resolve this issue is simply not consistent with the urgency that the administration has attached to nuclear proliferation,” Senator Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) said in testifying before the committee.

Bolton is the State Department’s top nonproliferation official, and Domenici questioned his effectiveness in resolving the dispute.

“I submit that Mr. John Bolton, who has been assigned to negotiate this, has a very heavy responsibility. And I hate to say that I am not sure to this point that he’s up to it,” Domenici said. “If he doesn’t think it’s important enough to solve, this issue of liability, then I submit that you ought to get somebody that can,” Domenici added.

Bolton told the committee that one of the issues delaying the resolution of the liability dispute is Russia’s lack of progress in ratifying an “umbrella” agreement used to establish the U.S. Cooperative Threat Reduction program. That agreement, which was agreed to by the Russian State Duma in the early 1990s, contained what Bolton said was a “blanket exemption” from liability for all activities funded through the CTR program. The agreement expired in 1999, at which point it was signed again by both the United States and Russia, but it has yet to be ratified by the Russian State Duma, the lower house of the Russian Parliament.

According to Bolton, the United States is concerned that accepting a lesser liability standard for plutonium disposition before the umbrella CTR agreement is approved may affect the liability standard used in CTR projects. While the Russian government agreed to submit the CTR umbrella agreement for ratification after the recent elections, it has yet to do so, Bolton said. If the agreement were submitted it would likely be approved, he added.

“We feel that the ratification of the CTR umbrella agreement is critical, because whatever liability provisions are worked out on other programs — and it’s not inevitable that the CTR liability provisions would apply — but it is critical that we not undercut or weaken the liability provisions we have under CTR,” Bolton said.

The Bush administration is “committed” to resolving the dispute, Bolton told the committee, adding that progress is being made on the design and regulatory approval of facilities to convert the plutonium into mixed-oxide fuel.

Senator Joseph Biden (Del.), the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said that more needed to be done at the presidential level to resolve the dispute. The Bush administration should use the possibility of progress in other issues important to Russia, Biden said, as “leverage” in moving forward on the liability dispute.

“The president has got to pick up the phone, get on the line, and find out whether [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is going to keep his commitments, and whether you guys, what I would suggest you be doing, is figuring out whatever leverage points we have with Putin. There’s a lot of things he wants and needs right now,” Biden told Bolton during the hearing.

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